OK, listen up. This is probably the most important post I’ve ever written. If you only ever read one thing on my blog or only ever take away one idea from it, please make it the distinction between contradiction and contrariety.
The diagram you see above is my own invention. I use it to teach this distinction, as I’m now doing. The sentence you see above it is from the first book of Aristotle’s Organon, the Categories. Aristotle’s Organon, by the way, has nothing to do with Patti Smith, Kate Bush, or Wilhelm Reich, but it has everything to do with Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum and Descartes’ Meditations. This is quite possibly the most important text in the history of philosophy, and this sentence may actually be the single most important sentence in that history, though not necessarily the most profound, true, or revelatory. This sentence is the nexus of every radical innovation in Aristotle’s corpus, and the keystone of his logical system. It is therefore, in a very meaningful sense, the beginning of Western metaphysics. Bow down, take a moment of silence. Let this sentence sink in. Savor it.
Now, to see why this sentence is so important, and what it has to do with the distinction between contradiction and contrariety, we have to take a step back from Aristotle to his oedipal teacher-daddy, that shallow, self-absorbed queen Plato, beloved of Socrates of Athens and Derrida the Algerian. Specifically, recall if you will, Derrida’s basic argument about “logocentrism.” Derrida asserts that a single set of ontological and epistemological conditions that he calls “logocentrism” have obtained continuously since Plato; this is what he calls “the European form of the metaphysical or onto-theological project, the privileged manifestation, with worldwide dominance, of dissimulation, of general censorship of the text in general” (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 197). For Derrida, this same basic condition obtains necessarily as the condition of metaphysics. In every text Derrida reads, he locates places where a concept or concepts almost violates the condition of logocentrism but finally fall back into its trap. Of Freud’s concepts, for example, he claims that “all these concepts, without exception, belong to the history of metaphysics, that is, to the system of logocentric repression” (ibid).
What does this have to do with contradiction and contrariety? Just this. All of Plato’s problems, and therefore all of Derrida’s problems, stem from the nature of non-contradictory oppositions. The nature of knowledge, Derrida says, is necessarily organized by a chain of substantial oppositions between pairs of things, or “binary oppositions”: good or bad, day or night, with one term always valued more highly and the two existing, as Aristotle says, “without a middle.” Derrida speaks of this as “non-contradiction, the cornerstone of Western metaphysics.” Any given thing must be either the one, or the other, and, like the aporias in Plato, Derrida’s aporias always fizzle away when they come to a place where the difference between the two halves of a contradiction can no longer be clearly demarcated, thus collapsing, supposedly, all the oppositions on which this initial indeterminacy is built. (If that explanation seems dense, imagine how annoying it would be to read this if you didn’t have that explanation).
In other words, the basic condition of “Western metaphysics” and “Western philosophy” for Derrida, is closely related to what I described in my post about the sex-gender opposition in yesterday’s post. It boils down to this: ultimately, nothing is ever absolutely one thingor the other, because there’s only one substance, there’s only one economy, and all relations and distinctions are ideas in the mind, as Hume and Spinoza say repeatedly. Binary non-contradiction is a useful model for thinking through certain problems, but conceptually and textually, it’s just absolutely invalid.
As I’ve said, Derrida and Plato have exactly the same problems, because Derrida assumes that the fundamental conditions of metaphysics haven’t changed in 2,500 years. Not only does Derrida claim that the fundamental conditions of metaphysics haven’t changed in 2,500 years, he also claims to be the radically innovative discoverer of these basic Platonic problems. Except, yeah, here’s the thing - the conditions of metaphysics change every time you build a new conceptual plane of immanence and every time the historical bloc shifts, and, more importantly, these problems were noticed, oh, 2,450 years ago. By Aristotle, Plato’s student, who famously broke with his teacher, founded his own school, tutored Alexander the Grrrreat, and then promptly became the most important and influential and most widely-read philosopher in the fucking universe, as is really clearly shown by historical and textual sources. So you see why Derrida insisted that nothing has changed since Plato. Because, um, it’s absolutely and completely untrue.
Aristotle, being a fucking genius, quickly noticed there were some things wrong with Plato’s theories. Assuming, of course, that he had theories - Plato’s dialogues are notoriously obscure, and, as Derrida and I are fond of pointing out for different reasons, the dialogues almost always end with nothing solved, nothing learned, and many new problems spawned, which is just what you want in a philosophical corpus.
The reason Plato’s dialogues end like this is because he was never able to get past the problem of non-contradiction and the problematics it spawned in turn. Never, not in a single dialogue. Perhaps his most famous attempt to work through the metaphysics of non-contradiction is the dialogueParmenides, in which Plato “dramatizes” a semi-legendary encounter between his teacher Socrates and Parmenides, the great Eleatic philosopher, and Parmenides’ brilliant, bitchy student Zeno of Elea, author of the famous paradoxes. Now, both Socrates and Parmenides died before Aristotle was born. So why was there a character named “Aristotle” in the dialogue?
Scholars, with typical insight, usually say, “Aristotle Aristotle wasn’t alive, so it must be some other, random Aristotle who doesn’t matter.” These are the same people who think that if they keep reading Plato’s dialogues for 2,000 years, they might eventually learn something, despite their insistence on ignoring the most obvious evidence which is right in front of their nose.
So here’s what I think: I think the Aristotle in Plato’s Parmenides is our Aristotle. Many scholars agree that Parmenides is a late-middle dialogue and marks a kind of ‘midlife crisis’ for Plato. I agree with that. And I think the source of this crisis was Plato’s desertion by his lover, student, and nominal successor, Aristotle. Diogenes Laertius records Plato saying that “Aristotle spurns me as a colt kicks his mother.” Ouch. But we should absolutely not assume that this mid-life crisis in Plato had to do with his being human and having feelings and a life and relationships. No, no. Surely Plato’s problems are rooted in the ontological impossibility of a condition of thought not pre-marked by the epistemological conditions of arche-writing. That makesWAY more sense.
So, again. Plato, being a boring, aristocratic whiner, drones on and on about this non-contradiction bullshit for pages and pages and pages. Then Aristotle comes along, scratches his chin, pulls up his sleeves, and says, “It is, therefore, distinctive of substance that what is numerically one and the same is able to receive contraries. This brings to an end our discussion of substance.”
BOOM. There’s no other way to put it. I mean, compare the length and idiocy of Socrates’s circumlocutions, which never go anywhere. Socrates never brought an end to a fucking discussion in his life. Aristotle solves all of Plato’s problems in a single sentence, goes to lunch, and then walks back to his school where, as Diogenes Laertius also says, “He would walk up and down with his students, debating questions until it was time to rub each other with oil.” Woof. My kind of teacher. In between, Aristotle wrote somewhere between 350 and 500 books, we’re not quite sure. AND, all ancient sources agree that he was always well-groomed, well-dressed, and very handsome, unlike Socrates, who was so ugly that the other faggots of Athens continually asked each other how it was possible that the gorgeous Greek stud-muffin Alcibiades was attracted to him (see the beginning of Plato’sProtagoras, or Plutarch’s life of Alcibiades for evidence). I don’t think I need to continue to demonstrate how much infinitely more awesome Aristotle was than Socrates and Plato. I mean, seriously. We’re talking Sartre and Deleuze here, guys.
Alright. So now at last, having establish an historical and conceptual plane of immanence to explain the significance of the concepts, and having Kept History Real, I can finally get to the gist.
Let me give Aristotle’s definitions first. In my recent post on Aristotle’s term logic and the Square of Oppositions, I pointed out that all of term logic basically boiled down to one idea: being can be predicated in different ways. This is an epistemological assertion: it describes the possibilities of the plane of conceptual immanence. Dialectics, meanwhile, is the means by which the plane of immanence is organized, and the distinction between contradiction and contrariety within a single substantial predication is a radically new dialectical element, invented by Aristotle, which forms the most essential basis of his entire conceptual plane of immanence. That’s why it’s important. Because nothing in philosophy as we know it, including Derrida, would be possible without this distinction that Aristotle fucking invented.
OK. Here are Aristotle’s definitions, in my own translation and paraphrase. Variations on these definitions are found in almost every book of the Organon. Two statements are contradictory if one affirms or denies universally what the other affirms or denies particularly. Thus, for example, the statements “All men are assholes” and “My boyfriend is not an asshole” are contradictory, because they can’t both be valid (they can’t be predicated of the same substance). Two statements are contrary if one affirms or denies particularly what the other affirms or denies particularly of the same thing. So it is not contradictory or invalid to say “This plate is hot” and “This plate is cold” of the same plate. The same object or ‘substance’ (‘plate,’ in this case) can serve as the objects of both predication without contradiction.
Just as importantly, a contrariety, unlike a contradiction, admits of a middle. For Plato, you can’t be both pious and not-pious. For Aristotle, you can be a little of both, and that’s how life works. Which one makes more sense to you?
So that’s the gist of it. Let me just add a few more points about the diagram on the index card. As in every plane of conceptual immanence, and as in my example from yesterday, all the concepts indicated here are ideas in the mind. A contrariety is not any more “real” or “true,” or any less so, than a contradiction. They are just two different ways of thinking about the relationship of any two possible objects. Basically, before Aristotle, you either believed that everything was contradiction, as Parmenides seems to have, or you believed that everything was contrariety, as Heraclitus seems to have. Plato spent his whole life trying to reconcile these two positions, and then Aristotle solved the whole crisis with one sentence. Girlfriend isfierce.
Think of each arrow on the diagram as a single “strand” from a complex network of ideas - your own mind’s total plane of conceptual immanence, what some people call “subjectivity” or “consciousness.” On one kind of strand, all the concepts overlap and bleed into each other. One one kind of strand, all the concepts arenominallydistinct. That is, they aren’t ontologically more or less distinct than the other kind, you justunderstandthem as being distinct. It’s all in your head, though.
Instead of beginning your plane of conceptual immanence with such aggressive and militaristic binary oppositions as Derrida taught you (rational/irrational, night/day, good/bad, normative/queer), think of your plane of conceptual immanence as a total body - a body without organs, in fact. Now, you know perfectly well that in a single body, some blood vessels bring in oxygenated blood and some carry away de-oxygenated blood. That doesn’t make arteries “better” than veins, it just means both functions are required to make your brain work. It’s not a question of contradiction orcontrariety, because that in itself is a contradiction. That’s what Plato was never able to understand. It takes both kinds of dialectic to make a village. It’s OK if things get a little messy. That’s just how the plane of conceptual immanence works. And more importantly, that’s how life works.